March 16, 2006

Cheap PCs for developing countries

The possibilities for getting cheap PCs into developing countries keeps growing. The Register has a series of articles on the alternatives.

The machines are getting cheap enough that it’s not a question of whether they should be all over even the poorest countries, but rather exactly how this should be accomplished. Electricity is a non-issue in some cases, more of a challenge in others. And actual internet access of course also needs to be provided.

But in essence — a few years from now, every schoolchild in the world should have access to most of the world’s educational information.

Except to the extent, of course, that her country’s leaders censor it out …

March 16, 2006

The laptop security nightmare

Keeping data on laptops secure against theft of the laptops is a nightmare.

But the diskless PC is a strong answer. Then all you have to keep secure is a small data module. Not only is that much easier because of the physical form factor, but it also is vastly easier to encrypt.

Yes, I’m repeating myself.

March 15, 2006

Path to the diskless PC?

Jimmy Daniels of RealTechNews writes about Robson Flash Cache technology, as an add-on to conventional PCs. But at the bottom he gets to what I think the core point, which is that it would be better to use flash to replace hard drives altogether.

Apparently Microsoft is pushing some kind of flash caching. Good for them, especially since — as I’ve previously noted — the move to diskless PCs will not necessarily be to their advantage. Maybe we’ll get to the promised land via some kind of intermediate path.

January 9, 2006

Fat clients, thin clients, segmentable clients

My columnist colleagues Frank Hayes and Mark Hall are having a friendly dust-up about fat clients vs. thin clients. If forced to choose, I’ll side with Frank’s view:

Whether or not IT wants to take fat clients away from users, it can’t.

And that’s one of the big reasons I like the idea of solid-state-memory-based PCs. In essence, they segment a PC’s disk, with strong air gaps to protect one part against the others. And if you do that, SOME of IT’s problems go away.

January 4, 2006

The Google PC could be a winner

EDIT: News reports are now carrying vigorous denials of the rumor. Oh well.

The Register is highly skeptical of the rumored Google PC. Admittedly, it’s playing in the intersection of several areas with bad track records, including:

Even so, I think there’s a lot of potential for this idea.

To see why, please consider that there basically are four major uses for home PCs:

  1. Work-at-home
  2. Gaming
  3. Internet/communication
  4. Schoolwork

Presumably, people won’t look to get their work-at-home or gaming PCs at Wal-Mart. That leaves internet/communication and schoolwork. Well, Google is one heckuva heavyweight in internet/communication. If you want a machine to do web surfing, email, instant messaging, and so on, why exactly would Dell/HP/Microsoft be more attractive suppliers than Google?

And how does one do schoolwork on a PC? There’s a lot of internet use, some lightweight use of word processors and other personal productivity tools, and occasionally some use of specialized software (e.g., development tools if you’re learning programming, or various kinds of educational java applets in all sorts of disciplines). Any good machine for communication can meet all those needs perfectly well.

What about IE-only websites, you might ask? Well, the only reason those survive outside Redmond is either total idiocy on the part of webmasters, or a smug reliance on the fact that everybody has IE available at least as a backup browser. But the thing is — they don’t. Mac support for IE has been dropped, and there still are a bunch of Macs out there. IE-only sites, already on the decline, can be expected to dwindle away fast. This is no longer a serious barrier to non-Windows PCs.

Another change from the past is the role of ISPs. These days, there is no role for ISPs, at least in the US. Internet connectivity is being taken over by the telephone and cable TV companies. And they’re just as (in)capable of supporting non-Windows PCs as they are of supporting Windows connections.

Most likely, the Google PC will fizzle at first simply because neither Google nor Wal-Mart really knows how to market it. Besides, the idea of Google as a complete provider of Microsoft-alternative software is slightly futuristic. But if they take their lumps, come back with Version 2 quickly, and then follow Microsoft-like with a kickass Version 3, Google could make a serious dent in Microsoft’s market share.

So that’s the Google threat to Microsoft. Coming soon (I hope) — a post on the Microsoft threat to Google.

December 18, 2005

Diskless PC possibilities

I’m not a hardware guy, so please pardon me if some specifics here are implausible, but an interesting idea has arisen, and indeed turned into the subject of my December Computerworld column. Shayne Nelson raised the subject of diskless PCs based on USB/flash “drives,” and a web search uncovered a Slashdot discussion on the subject a couple of months earlier, which in turn seems to have been based on a now unavailable Yahoo story. The technology certainly would seem to be practical in the near future, and it raises some interesting ramifications and possibilities.

1. The most vulnerable, volatile, and valuable parts of the computer — the programs and data — could now be removable and put in any pocket, or mailed without much fear of breakage. Even better, they could be segmented, on multiple drives per computer. Possible security and administration benefits include:

a. The drive that stores most programs could be locked down, tight. Pick your dream technology or policy for making PC images consistent across your network; it just became a lot more plausible to implement.

b. The drive that stores most data could be entirely encrypted. Flash drive access is several orders of magnitude faster than disk access, making this a reasonable precaution even though it’s not very practical with magnetic storage.

c. What’s more, laptops might still be lost or stolen — but they wouldn’t have to have data on them! An employee whose laptop is stolen is unlucky. An employee who leaves sensitive data in an unattended laptop could now be justifiably fired.

d. In two-factor authentication, the flash drive might be the second factor. No fuss, no bother.

e. You could physically upgrade every user’s disk without shipping PCs around. Just ship flash drives around instead.

f. Enterprises could implement a policy of NO PERSONAL WEB SURFING UNLESS YOU SWAP OUT COMPANY DRIVES (and therefore presumably swap in your personal ones). All kinds of security problems would be ameliorated ASAP, at much less cost to employee goodwill than more draconian crackdowns incur.

2. Environment-specific computer equipment would now be much more affordable. Classrooms, meeting rooms, operating rooms, etc. might have more suitable devices than they now do.

3. Before long, we might not need to travel with laptop computers! Yes, devices in hotel rooms might be problematic from a security standpoint, but there are workarounds for that too. And in any environment that’s more locked down, such as a home or corporate office, the problem is almost nonexistent unless you work for a Three Letter Agency.

4. Disk space would initially be decreased, just as the Web initially made UIs worse. That’s not a huge problem, but it might not bode well for bloatware vendors (e.g., Microsoft).

Obviously, this isn’t a big deal from a business standpoint until the devices are actually manufactured and sold. But it’s fun to think about. And it actually makes a whole lot of sense.

December 14, 2005

Data warehouse appliance market

Philip Howard — who in my opinion usually asks good questions but commonly comes to the wrong conclusions — offers a quick overview of the data warehouse appliance market. Basically, he says Netezza is going strong, a few startups have failed, and the jury is out on a few other vendors.

My research hasn’t been as extensive as his seems to be, but in this case his conclusions sound right to me.

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